People

So you want to be a space tourist

Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos are both going into space this month. Here's what you need to know if you are contemplating your own suborbital journey, from a conversation with the man training Virgin Galactic's space tourists.

A space-flight trainee.

A NASTAR trainee completes his space training course.

Photo: NASTAR

Richard Branson will fly into space on Virgin Galactic's newly-approved rocket in nine days, beating Jeff Bezos, his brother and veteran aviator Wally Funk by about a week. Branson and Bezos have officially leveled up the bucket list for billionaire club activities. If you, too, are interested in commercial space tourism, you're not alone. In fact, if you're thinking about it only now, you're actually behind the times compared to many of the rich and famous.

In Southampton, Pennsylvania, hundreds of people — including all of Virgin Galactic's future amateur astronauts — have been training for commercial space flight at the only FAA-approved high-performance human centrifuge in the Western Hemisphere, and hundreds more are scheduled to take their turns in the coming months. The National Aerospace Training and Research Center houses that centrifuge, and it offers commercial space training programs to introduce potential space travelers to the gravitational forces they will experience on an actual flight. It also teaches them how to cope with that physical experience. Protocol sat down with NASTAR'S COO, Glenn King, to learn what it takes for the average person to prep for a trip to space.

Technically, there are no legal rules or regulations for commercial space flight. While NASA astronauts might train for two years or more for their missions, all that the FAA requires of commercial, non-governmental missions is that people are given some form of training, though that could be as little as a half-hour safety video, according to King. Instead, it lets the commercial companies set their own rules, which King said is the reason he expects that commercial space flight will become increasingly common in the next few years.

But while some establishments do their own training, most contract with NASTAR, which has been working with the people who will be flying with Virgin Galactic, Axiom (the company planning luxury satellite hotels), SpaceX and other companies' flights this year and years after. NASTAR just finished training SpaceX's "Inspiration4" crew, which — if it launches as planned in September — will travel on the first vehicle to orbit the Earth and visit the International Space Station with only commercial, amateur tourists on board.

"Our centrifuge spins around at varying [revolutions per minute] to replicate G-forces. We can program that machine to provide the exact same G-forces at the exact same requirements as the vehicles," King said.

The main difference between a space flight and an airplane ride is the "G-force," or the acceleration you feel on your body. Human bodies on Earth experience 1 G, which keeps our feet on the ground. The acceleration and angle required to break from Earth's orbit create G-forces that are many times the weight of our own bodies (3 Gs to 5 Gs, usually), an experience that can be both physically and psychologically alarming and even dangerous.

People can train for this experience by building up their body's tolerance in the centrifuge. NASTAR'S machine simulates different types of takeoffs based on the rocket in question; for people preparing for Virgin Galactic flights, for example, the centrifuge will simulate the feeling of a horizontal takeoff that slowly angles vertically (in comparison to rockets that shoot upward vertically from takeoff). The company also adds audio and visual cues that replicate what people will see and hear on their actual flight.

"The people going into space go through this training program to understand what they are going to go through. They need to understand this is not like a commercial airline flight, this is extremely different," King said. "If you've ever ridden a roller coaster at an amusement park, coming out of the bottom of the turns, just for a very short duration, you're experiencing G-forces."

Actual astronauts are often chosen in part for their extraordinary physical fitness and mental health; people with varying health levels, heart conditions or other illnesses or disabilities would usually be disqualified from consideration for space flight. In addition to its regular training, NASTAR has also developed certification programs with medical monitoring to train people with varying degrees of health problems, both to certify their safety and prepare them to manage their conditions while in space.

"I just trained people with prosthetic devices, diabetes, pacemakers — normally in the past these were all disqualifiers, but now with proper training, conditioning and monitoring, they can be safe," King said. "I have not yet run across a disqualifying factor. I just finished training a gentleman from Argentina who has had polio since he was a child."

King hopes that the medical monitoring tools will allow space companies to widen their customer base. He envisions a future where this kind of training is commonplace, and where people with the means can take suborbital flights to travel from the U.S. to Australia, or to satellite hotels in orbit like the one Axiom plans to develop. Hundreds of people — maybe even thousands in total — have already bought their tickets for when this future becomes a reality. The planned SpaceX Starship (the ship Elon Musk wants to use for Mars journeys, already under development and testing in Texas) will be so large that 100 people could easily fit inside it, according to King.

"As it becomes more commonplace and the price point gets lower and lower, more and more people will start taking these trips. People will be going from Point A to Point B on Earth in under an hour," King said.

A version of this story appeared in Friday morning's Source Code newsletter.

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